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Henze Bonanza

July 10, 2007

The German composer Hans Werner Henze, considered one of Europe's major composers of the '60s, '70s, and beyond, rarely gets a hearing in the U.S. One fan, however, will not take this neglect (is it simply old-hattedness?) lying down. Instead, the founder of the Worn Ensemble, Richard Worn, has organized all-Henze concerts to reenlighten the Bay Area as to the merits of this artist.
His latest concert at the Presidio Chapel in San Francisco (you can buy a poster of the previous one for $10) offered up four of Henze's chamber works for audience delectation. Results show that at least half of them were worthy of more than attention.
Shepherds' Nightmare
The concert began with Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesange (New folk- and shepherd-songs), written in the late '90s for bassoon, guitar, violin, viola, and cello. No one, especially peasants or shepherds, would ever want to sing these. Henze's intention, as he put it, was to "preserve something of the mood and atmosphere of this melancholy region [Austria's Styria], just as a dream or painful memory."

The seven short movements offered up fragments of bittersweet waltzes mixed with dissonant etherealities. One, Abendlied (Evening song), seemed more suited to a rush-hour commute than to anything pastoral. Nevertheless, the unusual instrumental combination was expertly handled by the composer, and provided some interesting sonorities.

The next piece, a trio for guitar, mandolin, and harp, also known as Carillon, Recitatif, Masque (1974), was far more engaging, even beautiful. It has a fascinating history, having been commissioned by the British television franchise Grenada to accompany early-morning-hours test patterns. Rather than simply playing static or that circle with the Native American, Grenada used still photographs. The program didn't indicate whether Henze knew which photos would be used — I would guess he didn't — but the music he provided, penned for three string instruments, would have made the photos more interesting than regular daily programming.

The three movements don't really form a coherent whole, since the first, 10 minutes in length, dwarfs the other two (90 seconds or so each). Nevertheless, they are fascinating to listen to. Carillon starts off with "electronic" spatter on Howard Kadis' mandolin and then morphs into a C-major waltz followed by sections highlighting each instrument. Recitatif presents a beautiful guitar melody — superbly played by Justin Riberio — followed by a harp cadenza, impressively rendered by Dan Levitan.

Trauer-Ode (Mourning ode) for six cellos (1997) began the second half of the concert. Written in honor of the passing of Margaret Geddes, a member of the Darmstadt nobility and supporter of the arts, the work did not impress me, as it seemed to consist solely of dry formalisms.
Disembodied Voice
By contrast, the concluding and more significant work on the program, Being Beauteous, a 15-minute cantata on one of Rimbaud's Les Illuminations poems, was well-performed. The four cellos, harp, and soprano were conducted by David Milnes, of San Francisco Contemporary Music Players fame ("a conductor of extraordinary breadth," the program notes remind us).

The accurate, cool, clear, almost disembodied voice of Julia Hathaway, a master's-degree student at the San Francisco Conservatory, was highly appropriate for the music. But why was only a translation given, and not the sung French, easily obtainable on the Internet? The pleasures of Henze's ascetic vision need to be followed word for word — you never know when you'll get another chance to hear them.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.